Friday, February 24, 2012

Bengal’s chief minister aims to set up a personalized hegemony


AS YOU LIKE IT DAYS

-Cutting corners

Ashok Mitra, THE TELEGRAPH, 24.02.12

In the forenoon of a working day last month, West Bengal’s minister for municipal services and urban development called a press conference at the Writers’ Buildings, headquarters of the state government. He had important news to convey; the chief minister had decided to relieve the mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation of three key portfolios he was holding charge of and reallocate them among other members of the mayor-in-council; this was being done pursuant to the chief minister’s intense concern to improve the functioning of the corporation. Later in the day, the mayor, looking appropriately sheepish, admitted to the press that, yes, such a reshuffling of portfolios had indeed taken place.

This was an extraordinarily curious occurrence. For the CMC is not a corpus of the state government. It is a separate body set up under a statute enshrining the principles of local self-governance. The jurisdiction of the corporation spreads over more than one hundred wards, each of which elects, on the basis of adult suffrage, a councillor for the corporation. The councillors, in their turn, elect the mayor, who then chooses, from among the councillors, an executive body known as the mayor-in-council. The allocation of portfolios among members of the mayor-in-council is the exclusive prerogative of the mayor.

The state chief minister has per se no business therefore to decide which portfolio or portfolios the mayor of the corporation or members of the mayor-in-council will hold. What she did was altogether outrageous. The outrageous is however tending to emerge as the standard rule in the neighbourhood since she took over nine months ago. Her party has an overwhelming majority as much in the corporation as in the state assembly. Far more important, whatever she says is the final word in the party; all power is controlled by her, all power flows from her. This basic datum is casting its shadow on the state administration she presides over. The dividing line between the party and the government is also turning into a nearly invisible blur. The precincts of the government are being treated as catwalk for the party as well. The chief minister has made it known to everyone around that in her reign, only her mind matters; she makes up the mind for every other minister. She decides anything and everything not just in the state administration but for the municipal, panchayat bodies and public sector undertakings as well. She is no longer the minister for railways at the Centre. So what; since the successor is her crony, she keeps announcing, on her own, new rail routes for West Bengal almost every week.

The episode of reallocating the responsibilities of individual members of the mayor-in-council of the CMC is merely a more glaring specimen of the new order roaringly asserting itself. None dared to question even the propriety, leave aside the legality, of the usurpation by the government of the corporation’s jurisdiction. There was not a squeak even from the Opposition ranks. Nor did any civil society enthusiast rush to post a public interest litigation with the high court. Demoralization has obviously entered the soul on a very wide scale; as if it is being taken for granted that where political power is captured by a party in which only the leader counts, the rule of law must come to a standstill.

This should not have been so. The country has a Constitution which lays down norms of demeanour and conduct for administrative agencies at different levels. It also details mechanisms that will get activized if these norms are breached. The West Bengal chief minister, however, has circumstances in her favour. The polity, she knows, is now stuck at a stage where no discipline is enforceable. She can, for instance, hold the government in New Delhi hostage and give free rein to her arbitrary ways. The series of heady political successes she has scored in the recent period might also be in part responsible for a touch of megalomania affecting her reflexes.

These reflexes can have disturbing implications for a democratic system. The chief minister is, on the face of it, determined to see that her party is established as the only relevant category in the state, she wants to wish away the existence of other formations. Of late, she has been visiting district towns and holding discussions with functionaries of the district administration on developmental issues. A strange pattern has been unfolding. Where the district panchayat chief is her acolyte, the person is invited to these discussions. In case the individual concerned has a different political affiliation, he/she stays uninvited.

That rules and grammar do not matter anymore is illustrated by another lurid episode. Campus disturbances are the order of the day in the state. In one college, a group of students aided by outsiders owing allegiance to the party of the chief minister badly roughed up the college principle. They were allowed to get away. Following public outcry, they were later gathered in, a bailable charge was casually registered, and they were released immediately on bail. A similar incident of alleged manhandling of the principal was reported for another college. This time, the students accused of the offence had their allegiance with a political party in the Opposition. They were promptly arrested on multiple non-bailable charges and were repeatedly refused bail. After spending a full month in jail, they finally got back their liberty on the intervention of the high court. In both instances, the police had evidently been following the directives of the state government; the minister for home affairs is the chief minister herself.

Also consider the strange decision that has caused much heartburn among the Opposition. Ministers use the press corner at the state secretariat all the time to talk on political issues. A recent order, on the other hand, prohibits legislators from using the premises of the state assembly to address the press when no session is on. It can be a case of lapse of decency, but can it not as well be interpreted as an advance warning of creeping authoritarianism?

The worst victim of the chief minister’s purposive contempt for norms is her own finance minister. He was unable to present a proper budget and had to satisfy the minimum requirements of the Constitution by putting together a patchwork or an annual financial statement. No precise budgetary estimates have been possible because it will be a tale of trying to put up a structure on shifting sands. The expenditure side of the state’s budgetary accounts has been getting continuously revised since the chief minister persists with the habit of proclaiming a new scheme, involving a not-at-all negligible outlay, at every public function she addresses morning, afternoon and evening. At the same time, she will not, repeat not, allow the finance minister to make any fresh tax proposals that might be detrimental to her populist image. The only way out for the finance minister is, therefore, to pretend to provide for the ever-mounting public spending by imagining additional accrual of revenue through a toning up of administrative procedures and modalities of revenue collection. The eyewash does not deceive anybody. It is an impossible arithmetic for the state finance minister and he can only hope for extra funds from the Centre to bail him out, or, alternatively, a moratorium on loan repayments. At this point, the problem ceases to be his concern, and becomes, as it should be, that of the chief minister.

She has her weaponry. She believes she can threaten to withdraw her support to the United Progressive Alliance regime at the Centre unless special dispensations keep travelling from New Delhi in her direction. The strategists in the nation’s capital will not like to be blackmailed in this manner. A cat and mouse game is currently on. Those precariously perched on their seats of power at the Centre will perhaps be reluctant to allow a situation to develop where the government of West Bengal is unable to meet even the salary bill of its employees. It has, however, its own constraints. It will have difficulty entertaining the demand of the West Bengal chief minister for ‘untied’ funds that she could use to finance the freebies she promises unceasingly to her electorate. Nor can it agree to a moratorium on debt repayments for the state. One particular state can hardly be treated as sui generis, the other state regimes are closely watching the proceedings.

The West Bengal chief minister has embarked on an experiment. She aims to set up a personalized, near-authoritarian hegemony in one part of a country that has a formal Constitution with a framework of democratic norms. Governance, she has decided, is no different from an as-you-like-it sporting event. She is an optimist; the chaos in New Delhi, she believes, will act to her advantage. The Centre is in no position to lecture her. It is so enfeebled that it is incapable of disciplining even its own ministers, they go their different ways, the concept of collective responsibility has found its way to dusty death. Just as A. Raja did his own 2G allocations, never mind the views of the prime minister, the law minister, no less, defies the electoral laws, never mind the Election Commission; the home minister flaunts provisions of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, which tramples provisions of the Constitution. It is a free for all. The West Bengal chief minister is savouring — and availing of — the bedlam even as she, quite conceivably, guides her own state into a state of bedlam.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Weakening Panchayats in West Bengal


By Aparajita Bakshi*

*Tata Institute of Social Sciences, School of Rural Development, Tuljapur, aparajita.bakshi@gmail.com.

Review of Agrarian Studies, Volume 1, Number 2 (July-December, 2011)


The defeat of the Left Front in the West Bengal State Assembly election in May 2011, after 35 years in government, marks a historic break in the development trajectory of West Bengal. Under Left Front rule, West Bengal followed a development path distinct from the rest of India. Though economic growth in terms of growth of the State Domestic Product (SDP) was modest during these years, it was a period characterised by land reform, decentralisation of political and financial power through the panchayat system, and high rates of agricultural growth in the State. As a result of the pro-poor policies implemented by the Left Front government, West Bengal today is characterised by low economic inequality with respect to land ownership and consumption expenditure.

Given the economic and social history of rural development in West Bengal over the last 35 years, the rural development policy of the new State government, led by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), is a matter of substantial public interest. The fact that, during its pre-election political campaign, the TMC received support both from extreme Left groups and from the Congress Party, adds to public interest and curiosity with regard to the policies it is likely to implement. 

The new State government, however, is yet to make a clear statement of the development path it intends to follow in the countryside. It has neither revealed its development agenda nor tabled a revised budget in the Legislative Assembly, which would provide a measure of its commitments and priorities.

In the absence of any such explicit statement, the question that arises is: will the TMC-led coalition government seek to undo the past? Will it build on the institutional changes that have so radically transformed the West Bengal countryside, or will it undermine – or reverse – land reform and the panchayat system, as part of its new rural development regime?

Some reports have appeared in the media on these issues. A team of scholars who have recently conducted a study in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Bardhaman, and Birbhum, on behalf of the forum Punarba,1 report clear evidence on the ground of agrarian counter-reform – of an attempt to reverse land reforms in practice.

With respect to the institutional underpinnings of the panchayat system, too, the signs are disturbing. The Bengali newspaper Bartaman reported, on 31 October 2011, that the West Bengal government plans to employ Executive Officers at the panchayat level to implement development programmes.2 These bureaucrats will have the sole power to sign and release funds on behalf of the panchayat, a power thus far vested in the panchayat pradhan and the Block Development Officer, who is also an ex-officio member of the panchayat samiti or block-level panchayat. Further, these Executive Officers can be hired and dismissed by the State government. The need for this legislation has arisen, according to the newspaper report, because each panchayat has an allocated annual expenditure of Rs 1 crore to Rs 2 crores, and such large sums “cannot” be left to the disposal of elected panchayat members who are, “in many cases, corrupt.” Further, under the new system, panchayat members are to be relieved of their financial duties, a move that will ostensibly give them more time to concentrate on the development of their constituencies. 
Present Structure of the Panchayat
I begin with a brief review of the administrative structure, duties, and responsibilities of the gram panchayat in West Bengal as they were up to May 2011 – a structure that had evolved through a long process of institution-building and experience in decentralised governance.3 It is clear that, after the change in government in the State in May 2011, the panchayats are no longer able to carry out their functions in the manner described below and as recorded by us during our field enquiries in the villages.

The panchayat system in West Bengal is a three-tier system consisting of the zilla parishad at the district level, panchayat samiti at the block level, and gram panchayat at the supra-village level. A gram panchayat may consist of one or more villages, depending on their population. In West Bengal, since most villages are small, a gram panchayat generally consists of more than one village. There is one more level that has emerged below the gram panchayat level, namely the gram sansad or rural ward.

Each gram sansad elects a member to the gram panchayat. The panchayat pradhan is selected from among all members of the gram panchayat. A specific number of members are elected from each gram panchayat for representation at the higher tier of the panchayat, i.e. the panchayat samiti. Elected members of the panchayat samiti are also ex-officio members of the gram panchayat.

The functions of the gram panchayat include local-level planning and the implementation of various development programmes. Panchayat members form subcommittees (upa-samitis) that plan and monitor the different types of development work taken up by the gram panchayat. Each gram panchayat is expected to form five subcommittees as prescribed by the panchayat rules. Each subcommittee has a convenor, selected from among the panchayat members. The panchayat pradhan and upa-pradhan (deputy pradhan) are convenors of the Finance and Development subcommittees.

The administrative structure and functions of the gram panchayats were formalised by the West Bengal Panchayat (Gram Panchayat Administration) Rules, 2004. The panchayat works closely with departments of the State administration in implementing various government programmes. The State government departments have liaison officers who are responsible for assisting the panchayats.

The gram panchayat acts as a direct implementing agency for some government schemes and assists in the implementation of others. Gram panchayats also oversee the implementation of certain other schemes, though they are not directly involved in the funding and administration of these. For example, they assist in the formation and functioning of self-help groups under the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY); they work with the Health Department to implement programmes under the National Rural Health Mission; and they oversee the functioning of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres, Shishu Shiksha Kendras, and primary and upper primary schools. 

The gram panchayat prepares an Action Plan each year for implementation in the succeeding financial year. The preparation of the Action Plan begins at sansad-level general body meetings held in November. Those who attend the general body meeting make an assessment of the work that needs to be done in the village in the coming year, and draw up an action plan for each sansad based on these requirements. The panchayat receives action plans from all the sansads before preparing the Action Plan of the gram panchayat.

The gram panchayat Action Plan takes into account the total financial resources available to the panchayat, and how these resources can be spent to meet the requirements of individual sansads. Projects that can be taken up under different types of schemes and funds are mostly specified by the relevant funding authority.4 The funds generated by the gram panchayat, as well as a part of the State government and Central government funds (untied funds), may be spent by the panchayat in any area it finds appropriate. Based on the nature of the funds and on requirements at the local level, the gram panchayat draws up the annual Action Plan.

An executive body called the gram unnayan samiti (village development council) is responsible for implementation and monitoring of various schemes at the gram sansad level. The gram unnayan samiti comprises “elected member or members to the gram panchayat from the gram sansad, the opposition candidate obtaining second highest vote in the last gram panchayat election, three representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations / Community Based Organisations, three representatives of active self-help groups with at least two members from women-led self-help groups, one serving or retired Government employee, one serving or retired teacher  (all being voters of the area, i.e. members of the gram sansad), and another 10 members or 1 per cent of the total number of members of the gram sansad, whichever shall be higher.”5 Gram panchayats devolve a part of their funds to the gram unnayan samiti for implementation of different development programmes. Implementation of the annual Action Plan is assessed at a sansad-level meeting in March every year.

The gram panchayat maintains accounts of all its income and expenses in accordance with the West Bengal Panchayat (Gram Panchayat Accounts, Audit and Budget) Rules 2007. There are uniform formats in which the panchayats have to budget their expenses in accordance with the Action Plans, prepare mid-term revised budgets, and account for receipts and expenditures. The accounts are disclosed at annual meetings of the gram sansad in May every year. Computerisation of the accounting system had begun. Regular audits are conducted to monitor the financial management of each gram panchayat.
What has Happened Since May 2011?
This is a report based on brief field visits, in 2011, to two villages in Bardhaman district where I have been conducting research for a number of years. The first is Raina gram panchayat in Raina-I block where I have been working since 2005 on a series of research projects, the most recent of which is an ongoing, Indo-Japanese collaborative study on panchayat-level statistical systems. Our research indicates an accurate system of record-keeping and management in this panchayat, a direct consequence of efficient local-level planning and implementation of development projects:

In summary, the Raina gram panchayat has a rather good database for people and their public policies at the village level, on the basis of a more people-oriented panchayat system than elsewhere. (Okabe and Bakshi 2007)

The second is Kanksa block in Bardhaman district, which was the site for a study I conducted in 2010 on exemplary implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).6

On 30–31 October 2011, I interviewed the pradhan of Raina gram panchayat, the sabhapati of Kanksa panchayat samiti, and panchayat officials from Bonkati and Trilokchandrapur gram panchayats in Kanksa block, to get first-hand information on new directions in panchayat administration since May 2011. They reported that the panchayats have faced serious disruptions in their work since the elections. What follows is an account of events that have taken place in these two villages since May 2011.
Disruption of Work in Panchayats
In both Raina and Kanksa, a large majority of the elected members in the gram panchayats belong to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M). Out of 115 elected gram panchayat members in 7 gram panchayats in Kanksa block, only 5 are TMC members. Of the 12 elected members in Raina gram panchayat, 1 belongs to the TMC and the rest are CPI(M) members. In both locations, CPI(M) party offices were ransacked and work disrupted after the elections. In Raina, the party office was locked for two days and party members (including the upa-pradhan) were not allowed to enter the panchayat office. The panchayat was not allowed to distribute rice received for drought relief, or clothes purchased with Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds for distribution during the festival season. The panchayat was compelled to hand over the rice and clothes to TMC party members for distribution.

In Kanksa, the CPI(M) local committee office and CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) office were ransacked, and the local contractor was not allowed to carry out panchayat work. Development work in Raina gram panchayat has been badly affected due to continuous disruption by TMC members and violence directed against panchayat functionaries. The upa-pradhan has not been able to enter the gram panchayat office since May. One panchayat member resigned from his post after his house was attacked and ransacked while he was attending a panchayat meeting. In addition, houses of the secretaries of four gram unnayan samitis were attacked and ransacked. It is important to note that the gram unnayan samiti is an apolitical village-level body with members selected by the people of the village, and its secretary is an impartial and noted resident of the village. I was told that the panchayat samiti sabhapati (chairperson) and sahakari sabhapati (deputy chairperson) of Raina-I block were beaten up in the panchayat office.

The pradhan said that she had been spared physical violence because she is a woman, but she has had to face other forms of humiliation on many occasions. “I have not missed a single day of office since the election results were declared on 11 May, no matter what happened,” she declared. The transformation I have seen in her in the last four years, from the shy and demure woman I first met in 2008, when she took charge as the pradhan (she won her seat in a reserved category as a Dalit woman candidate), to a self-confident and able administrator, exemplifies for me the implicit social dividends that the panchayati raj system provides, in addition to self-governance.

It is mandatory for every committee in each gram panchayat in West Bengal to conduct meetings at least once every two months, and to hold monthly health meetings with health workers on the fourth Saturday of every month. The panchayat members in Raina are no longer able to conduct these meetings. TMC members have demanded that they be included in the meetings even when they are not elected panchayat members. Only two health meetings could be conducted since May. The Rogi Kalyan Samiti (welfare committee for patients in the primary health centre) has been disbanded.
Police Cases Registered Against Panchayat Functionaries and CPI(M) Members
In both locations in Bardhaman district that I visited in November 2011, it was the same story. Immediately after the Assembly elections, a number of police cases were registered against panchayat functionaries, CPI(M) members, and CPI(M) sympathisers, alleging corruption and acts of violence: 39 such cases were registered in Raina gram panchayat, and 38 cases were reported in Kanksa block.
Subversion of Panchayats’ Decision-Making Functions
Weakening of the institution of panchayats appears to be happening in two ways. First, through a systemic change in development administration; and secondly, through coercive and corrupt practices.

There has been a change in the attitude of the State government towards panchayats. The previous Left Front government viewed the panchayat as a means of service delivery directed by elected representatives of the people, and many of the functions of development administration were gradually shifted from the level of the bureaucracy to the level of the panchayat. A system of partnership between the two wings of administration, the bureaucracy and the panchayat, had evolved in the State in the sphere of planning and implementing local development schemes. The bureaucracy played a vital role in administration and supervision, while the panchayats enjoyed considerable autonomy in decision-making and implementation. The power relations between these two wings, of course, varied across the State, as did the efficiency of the panchayats. However, in a district like Bardhaman, where the panchayat system was strongly entrenched, the power relations between the two displayed a measure of equality.

The report in the newspaper Bartaman, cited earlier, gives some indication of the present trends. My respondents in Raina reported that since May 2011, all work related to Central government schemes in which the panchayat does not have a mandatory role, such as the National Old Age Pension Scheme (NOAPS), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), and the National Family Benefit Scheme (NFBS), is being supervised and implemented by the block-level bureaucracy. Earlier, the panchayat used to play a role in selecting the beneficiaries of, and disbursing funds for, such schemes.  The beneficiaries of NOAPS and IAY were selected from the list of below-poverty-line households, and fund transfers were done through banks and post offices, but the panchayat used to facilitate these processes. The panchayat in Raina had appointed a person to deliver pensions to beneficiaries of NOAPS who are too old or otherwise unable to go to the bank to collect their pensions. Panchayat mediation also acted as a safeguard for such persons against exploitation by near relatives. This practice has stopped now, and old people find it difficult to collect their pensions.

More significantly, Raina gram panchayat no longer has the power to decide how to use the Local Area Development funds allotted to Members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly. The use of these funds was earlier decided entirely by the panchayat, and served their Action Plans. Since the Assembly elections, the Block Development Officer has been directed to control the allocation and use of such funds. Panchayat members of Kanksa block reported a similar situation. The implementation of NOAPS in Kanksa was taken over by the block office after April 2011.

According to the pradhan of Raina gram panchayat, no directives have been issued by the Ministry about the role and functions of panchayats under the new government. This has led to an uncomfortable situation for panchayats as they are unsure about their jurisdiction.

Another instance of the weakening of panchayats, as reported in Kanksa, is as follows. In some of the panchayats here, the pradhan is being forced to give permission to projects outside the Action Plan and the financial budget formulated earlier in the year. Demands are also being made to allocate Indira Awas Yojana funds to people outside the below-poverty-line list, and panchayat functionaries have had to succumb to such pressures.
Corruption Charges Against Panchayat Officials
After the election victory of the Trinamool Congress, groups of TMC members entered panchayat offices in both locations calling for resignation of panchayat officials, and demanding that panchayat accounts and ledgers be subjected to their scrutiny. In Amlajora gram panchayat of Kanksa block, the panchayat pradhan and upa-pradhan were encircled and confined, and asked to resign, on the allegation that seeds for crop-planting had not been distributed.

In Raina gram panchayat, towards the end of May, a TMC deputation demanded that the panchayat hand over all account books and registers for scrutiny. The pradhan asked them to photocopy all the documents at their own expense, or to file a complaint under the Right to Information Act, in which case the panchayat would meet the expenses of photocopying. The estimated cost of photocopying all the documents demanded by the deputation was Rs 1,25,000, an amount the panchayat could not bear without accounting for it. According to the pradhan, the panchayat has all the documents in order and all the financial accounts have been duly audited, but she does not have the legal right to hand over such important documents to complainants without following official procedure. The TMC deputation was however given summary reports on the implementation of NREGS, which are available to anyone for scrutiny.

With these reports in hand, the TMC team began its own evaluation of the NREGS work done in Raina. On 14 July 2011, the secretary of the gram unnayan samiti of Raina Paschim Para, Md. Musa, was arrested on allegations of corruption in the implementation of NREGS. According to the panchayat pradhan, assistant engineers of the Block Development Office colluded with a TMC member to falsely implicate him. After Md. Musa’s arrest, all secretaries of the gram unnayan samitis in the panchayat resigned, thus destroying the basic stratum of the panchayat, the link that connects the panchayat to the people. Shortly after this, all NREGS supervisors resigned, fearing that they too may be implicated in false cases of corruption. Some of the NREGS work, such as road construction, is easy to verify and measure even after considerable time has elapsed. But some of the work is temporary in nature, such as clearing and maintaining bunds, land development, and work on the land of marginal cultivators. Such work cannot be verified or measured correctly after time has elapsed. This has given ample scope for disputes, manipulation, and allegations. The NREGS work supervisors feel increasingly vulnerable in the new situation.

The situation with regard to NREGS work is similar in Kanksa, though perhaps not as acute. Disputes have arisen over measurement issues with regard to NREGS work, and supervisors are reluctant to take up new projects.  
The NREGA Battleground
NREGA has placed a large, relatively new, source of funds at the disposal of the gram panchayat. The gram panchayat has a major role to play in planning and implementing the NREGS. Though West Bengal as a whole has been a modest achiever in terms of aggregate performance-based indicators in implementing the Act, the State has been a pioneer in terms of creative implementation of the project (see Bakshi 2010). It was the first among all Indian States to allow work on agricultural land-holdings of marginal and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe cultivators under NREGS, a move later formalised by the Central government. The State has also achieved imaginative implementation of the Scheme by converging NREGS with other development schemes.

The pace of implementation of NREGS has retarded since May 2011, in both the villages I visited. Kanksa and Raina have been success stories in respect of implementation of NREGS in West Bengal. In 2010–11, Kanksa block was able to provide 100 days of employment on average to wage-seeking households. The average number of days of employment per wage-seeking household in Raina gram panchayat in 2010–11 was 86 days.

However, as mentioned earlier, due to corruption charges levelled against panchayat functionaries and NREGS supervisors, NREGS work came to a standstill in both Raina and Kanksa after the Assembly elections. In Raina, all NREGS supervisors resigned in July. An all-party meeting was conducted after this with the mediation of the BDO, and fresh applications for new supervisors were sought. Since there were too many applications, the panchayat pradhan kept away from the selection process and the supervisors were selected by the BDO. After the new supervisors took charge, five to six days of NREGS work were provided in September. The pradhan is of the view that the work undertaken by the new supervisors is of poor quality and that there are measurement issues as well, but she has been forced to sign on the work completion document. She said that she would not be surprised if new allegations of corruption are levelled against her. Only 54,429 person-days of work were generated in the first seven months of financial year 2011–12, which is around 20 per cent of the total employment created in the previous year.

In Kanksa block too, supervisors had refused to undertake NREGS work for fear of allegations of corruption. NREGS work had completely stopped in three gram panchayats (Amlajora, Gopalpur, and Bidbihar). In Bonkati gram panchayat, work stopped in 2 out of the 10 sansads. An all-party meeting was held by the block office in July and an all-party committee was formed, after which work was resumed to some extent. Problems remain in some of the sansads, however, due to disagreements between members of the all-party committee. In spite of such difficulties, an average of 57 days of employment per wage-seeking household were created in Kanksa block between April and September 2011.

In both places, some interesting experiments had been conducted on group farming involving self-help groups. Fallow land was reclaimed through land development initiatives under NREGS and given to self-help groups for cultivation. In Raina, bunds around large water bodies were planted with trees (eucalyptus, for example, which can be sold for timber) and vegetable gardens, and leased out to self-help groups. Some privately owned water bodies were re-excavated under NREGS and leased out to self-help groups for fish farming. The lease agreements were all mediated through the panchayat, and the panchayat was also made a direct stake-holder in these agreements. In Raina, one of the ponds (Girija pukur) and its bunds were leased out for ten years to self-help groups, and it was agreed that the self-help group, the owners, and the gram panchayat would share the proceeds from the sale of timber in the ratio 60:20:20 – and the owners would get 60 kilograms of fish annually from the pond after the first two years. After the change of guard in the State government the owners of the pond have refused to accept the predetermined share, and are demanding a 40 per cent share in the proceeds from sale of timber. They are also demanding a share in the annual catch of fish in the first two years of the lease. I had argued in an earlier paper, perhaps over-optimistically, that these group farming experiments in Bardhaman could give a new direction to land reform policy in the State, as the scope for conventional reforms has diminished due to land scarcity. It is now unlikely that there will be further progress in this direction since the State government seems to be allying with the propertied class, and the bargaining power of the poor has been weakened.
Undermining Other Development Programmes in Raina
The self-help group movement was strong in Raina, and the panchayat had extended considerable support for strengthening these groups. The self-help groups were being monitored by the gram panchayat and an NGO named Sister Nibedita, which has its office in Shyamsundar. Since the elections, resource persons from the NGO have not been allowed to visit the self-help groups. The panchayat has also not been able to monitor the work of the self-help groups.

Another important scheme of the Government of West Bengal is the Provident Fund for Landless and Agricultural Labourers (PROFLAL). This is a social security scheme for agricultural labourers in which they contribute a small monthly subscription and the State government contributes an equal amount as provident fund. The contributors have their own bank accounts through which the financial transactions are done. A person is employed by the panchayat to collect their monthly subscriptions. Rumours are now being spread that all the PROFLAL savings have been diverted and misused by the panchayat. Despite possessing savings books with records of PROFLAL subscriptions, the vulnerable agricultural labourers are being misguided and, as a result, very few of them have submitted subscription amounts after May. The person in charge of collecting the monthly subscriptions has been driven out of the village.
Regressing into the Future?
The panchayati raj system in West Bengal is a system that has evolved over the years with the objective of introducing local self-governance that is pro-poor and transparent. Over three decades, new institutions have been created and new regulations framed to devolve greater financial and administrative power to the grassroots level, and to introduce development planning and financial accountability from below. In many other parts of India, the panchayat remains a weak body with limited powers, and, very often, is dominated by the socially and economically powerful. The panchayat structure in West Bengal, though not free of all weaknesses, presented a different picture. Like the path of development itself, the performance of panchayat insitutions across the State was unequal, of course, as not all of them were equally equipped to handle their responsibilities. However, well-functioning panchayats were often able to make a substantial difference to planning and implementation of development programmes, and, more importantly, to the lives of the poor. The recent developments in West Bengal undermine this achievement, and may well herald a shift in class alliances and power relations in the State.

Keywords: Panchayat, panchyati raj institutions, West Bengal

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Sabhadhipati Bardhaman Zilla Parishad Uday Sarkar, Sabhapati Kanksa panchayat samiti Janardan Chatterjee, Pradhan Raina gram panchayat Madhabilata Dhara, Sabyasachi Dey and members of Kanksa panchayat samiti and Raina gram panchayat for their kind cooperation.

Notes

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 3 This section draws heavily on an ongoing study of panchayat-level statistical systems by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies and Yokohama National University. See Okabe and Bakshi (2007). The main case study covered in this paper was conducted in Raina gram panchayat, Raina-I block, Bardhaman district, West Bengal.

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 4 For example, in the case of Central government funds, specific funds may only be spent on implementation of specific schemes; MP/MLA area development funds are disbursed for specific projects; and State government departmental funds, and panchayat samiti and zilla parishad funds specify the amounts to be spent in different sectors.
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References
Bakshi, Aparajita (2011), “Changing Lives and Landscapes: A Case Study of NREGS in Bonkati Gram Panchayat,” Review of Agrarian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, available at www.ras.org.in, viewed on November 1, 2011.
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Bhattacharya, Malini (2011), “Reversing Reforms?” Frontline, October 8–21.
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Bhattacharya, Malini, et al. (2011), “Reversing Land Reform in West Bengal: A Report,” available at www.pragoti.org.in/node/4527, viewed on November 1, 2011.
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Chattopadhyay, Jagannath (2011), “Panchayat Chalate Amla Niyog Habe,” Bartaman, October 31.
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Government of West Bengal (2007), Annual Administrative Report 2006–07, Panchayats and Rural Development Department, Government of West Bengal.
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Okabe, Jun-ichi, and Bakshi, Aparajita (2007), “Panchayat Level Data Bases: A West Bengal Case Study,” Centre for International Trade Studies (CITS) Working Paper No. 3, Faculty of Economics, Yokohama National University.
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Unabated Farmer Suicides Point to a Looming Agrarian Crisis



By Sheikh Saidul Haque 
BEFORE going into details about the present agrarian crisis in West Bengal that is leading to a number of farmers committing suicide in the last few months, let us look, in a nutshell, at the condition of the agriculture sector in our country. This sector is in a state of widespread and deep rooted crisis. Its share in GDP has come down over the years. The agriculture sector, which contributes 17 per cent to nation’s GDP and employs around 60 percent of the population, grew by just 0.2 per cent in 2009-10 fiscal. The sector has suffered a serious setback in the last two decades, particularly from 1991 onwards when the neo-liberal policies were adopted and WTO regime started operating. 
The agriculture sector has witnessed growth rate of only 2 per cent per annum during Ninth Plan period and about 2.3 per cent during the Tenth Plan against a target of 4 per cent. In the first few years of the current Eleventh Plan period, the average growth was 2.2 per cent, which is much below the expected rate.  In fact, the average economic growth during the last four years ranged between 7 per cent to 9 per cent per annum, but there is hardly 2 to 2.2 per cent growth in the agriculture sector during this period. 
PLIGHT OF FARMERS
Farming is no longer a preferred profession in India, especially among the new generation, due to a variety of reasons like the high degree of uncertainty in income; higher input costs and lower returns; high dependence on monsoon along with low irrigation; limited access to affordable credit; low productivity due to outdated techniques etc.  Many times the farmers are forced to resort to distress sales at much below the minimum support prices. To add to these are the effects of the policies adopted by the central government in encouraging export oriented agriculture, corporate-led contract farming and forward trading of agricultural products. According to the findings of NSSO 59th round survey, an estimated 27 per cent of farmers did not like farming because it was not profitable. In all, 40 per cent felt that, given a choice, they would take up some other career. Out of 89.35 million farmer households, 43.42 million (48.6 per cent) were reported to be indebted. 
The farmers are not getting remunerative price for their produce. The prices of paddy, potato, jute, cotton and many other agricultural products have fallen to a large extent. Even the farmers are compelled to sell their produce at rates that are much below the support price. Almost 2.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide all over the country in last few years. Out of 28 states, farmer suicides are going on unabated in 15 states. It is so increasing that two farmers commit suicide every 6 hours in any part of the country, i.e. 3 to 4 in a day. 
The highest number of farmer suicides occurred in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. In the last one year around 700 farmers committed suicide in the region. Around 90 farmers committed suicide in the last two months in Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, 956 farmers committed suicide  in the last three years. In Mandya district of the state alone, during the last few months 11 silk farmers committed suicide because of fall in the price of raw silk .So also the case with the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh, many soybean farmers have committed suicide. Even in Kerala, in the last six months 8 farmers have committed suicide in in Wyanad district. The former LDF government had given special support price and incentives on agricultural produce bringing down the suicides in the state. But the present UDF government has not paid any special attention to the miserable plight facing the farmers that is mainly caused by the Free Trade Agreement policy adopted by the union government. The UPA government has announced special packages for Vidarbha and Bundelkand regions, but that has had little impact on the ground. 
WEST BENGAL SCENARIO
The state of West Bengal had been immune to such cases of farmer suicides during the last 34 years when Left Front government was in place. That government stood by the side of the farmers and took all measures to extend support through higher MSP, providing loans etc. But with the change of government in the state, these are being withdrawn throwing the farmers into a miserable condition. Their plight is deplorable as they resort to distress sales – may it be paddy, potato or jute. While the input cost of seeds, fertiliser, pesticides and equipment have shot up substantially, farmers are not even being paid the minimum support price. Farmers across the state are being forced to sell their produce in distress sales. This present crisis has been caused because of the wrong policies adopted by the present state government and its careless attitude to farmers. This can be seen in regard to procurement of paddy. The state government owned marketing federations like BENFED, CONFED and ECSC (Essential Commodity Supply Corporation) are not purchasing paddy to the desired levels. As against their target of procuring 9 lakh tonnes, so far they have procured only 50,000 tonnes. Overall, a mere 2 lakh metric tonnes had been procured so far as compared to the target of 20 lakh metric tonnes. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is buying rice from rice mills and as per this decision of the  government, small and marginal farmers are forced to carry their paddy to the rice mills, often situated at long distances, to sell their produce. And the rice mills are paying the farmers only through cheques that are to be cashed only after two months. How funny and unrealistic is the procurement policy can be seen from the above. Corruption in the procurement system at several rice mills meant that farmers were being paid between Rs 480 to Rs 540 per sack of paddy , instead of Rs 648 that has been fixed by the government as MSP. Even in 2004, when the Left Front government was in power, such kind of a situation occurred. But at that time the state government engaged all government and semi-government agencies, including rural cooperatives and self-help groups to purchase paddy directly from the farmers by giving them sufficient funds. The Left Front government had also declared bonus for small and marginal farmers. It also protected potato farmers from resorting to distress sales by supporting them. However, this year the paddy farmers are not even being paid rates they were paid last year when the minimum support price was Rs 600 per bag of 60 kg.  The present policies not only created hurdles for the farmers to sell their paddy but also created a new breed of middlemen in the form of ruling party cadres. Potato farmers are not even lifting potatoes from the cold storages. By some estimates, around 6 lakh tonnes of potatoes are lying in the cold storages in the state. The farmers are unable to pay the lifting charge because potatoes are now selling at Rs 20 or less per 50 kg bag at the storage gate. 
It is in such a dire situation that Bengal is witnessing farmer suicides, a phenomenon totally absent during the 34 years of Left Front rule. In the last three and half months (Oct 01, 2011 – Jan 15, 2012) as many as 21 farmers have committed suicide because of indebtedness and distress sale. 
Most of the farmers committing suicides are small and marginal farmers and also agricultural labourers with meagre holdings of patta land. Among the 21 farmers who have died, three belong to scheduled tribe. As many as 14 of those who committed suicide belong to Burdwan district, which is regarded as the granary of Bengal. Coming from a farmer’s family from that district, I know how the paddy farmers are in a state of dichotomy between what the state government is propagating and what the real situation is. Any investigation will show what kind of predicament the farmers of Bengal are facing now.   
UNDER ESTIMATION OF THE SITUATION
The present TMC-led state government instead of giving due importance to the causes for such farmer suicides in the state, is limiting itself to vehemently denying such incidents. Though its coalition partner, the Congress, admits the cases of  farmer suicides and has also demanded  compensation, the effort seems to be to cover up the anti-farmer policies of the present central government and also to gain some political mileage vis a vis TMC. The chief minister has engaged some bureaucrats and ministers to play that game of denying the reality. It has not taken any proper steps to buy paddy, potato and jute from the farmers by giving them proper minimum support price. This government has failed to involve the government agencies in directly procuring from the farmers and saving them from resorting to distress sales. They are not adding any bonus to the MSP on the plea that there is no money. But they have the money to increase the salaries and daily allowances of ministers and MLAs. They have the money to celebrate Digha festival by spending crores of rupees. At present the government has left the paddy farmers to the mercy of the rice mill owners who are by and large harassing the them to sell their produce at distress rates. This is really horrifying. The under estimation and denial of farmer suicides by the state government is a deliberate attempt to hide the administrative and systemic failures. It also shows political failure because the government has shown no political will to stand by the side of the farmers, though they came to power with slogan of “maa – mathee – manush”. 
More deplorable is the plight of the agricultural labourers who practically have no work for the last six months. MNREGA works have virtually been stopped in many parts of rural Bengal. Elected panchayat bodies cannot function in the villages because of the threats and attacks by the ruling party supported hooligans. The present state government has been able to provide just 19 days of work per household in the 100 days work scheme. Bypassing the elected bodies, the government is now depending on bureaucrats to implement the scheme. 
So, overall an agrarian crisis is looming large in Bengal with vast sections of the farming community in deep distress. On the one hand, they are not getting MSP for their produce, on the other hand many of them are in a debt trap. The government shows no positive stand to address the crisis. It is resorting to gimmicks. The chief minister says that it is the central government that fixes the MSP and so her government has no role to play. But it is the same coalition that is in power at the centre also. The chief minister keeps claiming that it was because of her pressure that the centre was forced to hold its decision regarding FDI in retail and from increasing fuel prices. Then the question arises why is she not pressing hard upon the central government to raise the MSP for farmers? Why is she not demanding the implementation of Swaminathan Commission Report? Why has she not objected when the central government raised the prices of fertilizers and also decontrolled it? Another question is even whatever MSP has been announced, why are the farmers of Bengal not getting even that amount? The suffering farmers of the state are demanding answers to these questions. The government has failed to pay Rs 3 crore as its share in the crop insurance scheme resulting in the affected farmers not getting any benefit.  This shows how unconcerned this government is to the plight of farmers. 
FARMERS’ PROTEST
With the present government failing to protect their interests, the farmers are coming on to the streets to protest against the anti-farmers policy of this government. They are holding rallies against the lackadaisical attitude of this government in solving their problems. In Coochbehar, jute growers have set fire to their crops in protest. In Burdwan, Hoogly and other parts of the Bengal, potato growers did the same to express their protest. In many parts of the state, paddy growers have dumped paddy on the road side and burnt it. Responding to the call given by four Left kisan organisations for state wide agricultural strike on January 4, 2012, many farmers across the state stopped agricultural works and stayed away from their fields during the day to protest against this anti-farmer policy. They are demanding remunerative prices and a proper procurement policy. They also want proper implementation of MNREGA scheme. They are demanding restoration of subsidies in agriculture, including fertilizers. 
It is important thing to note here that because of the present agrarian crisis some farmers in Andhra Pradesh have declared crop holiday. Even in West Bengal, it is seen that in some parts of the state a section of farmers who have incurred considerable losses from the Aman crop are deciding against planting upcoming Boro crop. With full sympathy to their sentiments, there is a need to propagate that this should not happen. Because that would result in a national crisis where there shall be shortage of food and the country will be thrown back to the decades of 1960s when India had to depend on food imports from other countries. 
In such a situation both central and state governments should initiate urgent measures to provide relief to the agricultural sector. Steps should be taken for direct procurement from the farmers with proper MSP and also adding bonus to it. Measures should be taken to implement Swaminathan Commission Report for fixing MSP because at present MSP is not commensurate with the cost of production that has risen sharply. Both central and state governments should come forward with compensation and rehabilitation package to the deceased families taking into consideration the human and social implications. Recently the state government had announced compensation for those who died in AMRI Hospital fire accident and in the Hooch tragedy. Then, why is it not extending the same to families of farmers who have committed suicide? 
Along with these demands for providing relief to those engaged in the agricultural sector, we must doggedly and unitedly fight against the state and central governments in order to make them change their neo-liberal policies and to promote a sustainable model of agriculture that will reduce the risks of farmers and protect their interests.

People’s Democracy, January 29, 2012